To be cautious and err on the safe side, this essay ought to be entitled the rise and fall, and probable rise again of TVR – maybe. If there is a better example than TVR of the strengths and weaknesses of the British car industry I can’t think of one.
A brief history
For those unknowing of the sportscar company’s existence that took its initials from its founder TreVoR Wilkinson in 1947 here is a brief history: It manufactured lightweight sports cars made of fibreglass using another manufacturer’s engine.
It rose to prominence in the mid-eighties offering what none of the big manufacturers could offer, powerful sports cars at a relatively cheap price, giving buyers a lot of bang for their bucks, and styling that was knock out bonkers.
At the start of the new Millennium the owner who had taken it to knew heights, but not reliability, a chain smoking scientist who disliked unions, Peter Wheeler, sold the Blackpool-based company to a zit-ridden young Russian who barely knew how to ride a tricycle never mind run a car company.
The company went into financial free-fall. Beaten by his lack of expertise in everything except dilettantism, Nicolay Smolenski sold the title to a syndicate of British, (as far as one can tell) businessmen under the leadership of Les Edgar. After delays, Edgar moved the company’s manufacturing base to Wales, and has now produced TVR’s first sports car in over a decade, the Griffith.
I confess I owned a TVR once. It was not wonderful to drive when it went, which wasn’t all that often. A low purchase price was arrived at by using very cheap parts, important parts such as fuses. But it was breath-taking to look at. The proportions were perfect, the only annoyance a useless cleft in the doors to make fitting them easier. Cars are not art, but there is art in the making of them. They are notoriously difficult to get their design to work harmoniously. TVR had a habit of bringing out show stoppers.
The car I owned was the second iteration of the Griffith, a Griffith 500 LE. It is the only car that has made my heart beat faster, and the heart of almost every man who saw it. On seeing it for the first time I was riveted to the spot. I thought I was in car heaven. I chucked my savings and borrowings at it, a stupid thing to do for a British car.
“When I think of TVR I think of bad taste” said a fine artist educated in sophisticated aesthetics. She was right. TVR had a way of producing way, way over-the-top designs, and then allowing customers to camouflage them in dual or triplicate flip-paint to out-do the designer. Flip paint is fine for a high-end handbag, or a waistcoat, but a whole car?
On the plus side, switches, handles and bezels were fashioned in real billets of aluminium. TVR employed crafts folk in the instrument and leather departments. No silver sprayed plastic for them. No leatherette or vinyl for a TVR cabin. The fibreglass body did not rust. The rumble of its venerable V8 engine loosened fillings. Oh, joy.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
When the car was delivered it was clothed in five different shades of red, the maker’s paint shop not understanding that using the same colour of paint for everything will appear a different shade when infused with different materials: plastic, woollen carpets, leather and metal. I had the interior recovered in black leather with red stitching.
The seats were rock hard. It hated being driven around corners. The lift off targa roof panel was a pig to store in the boot and an entire piggery to put back on again. An iffy ECU meant it broke down in very public places. Its tubular construction rusted just sitting in the garage. Frustrated and embarrassed, I sold it within two years.
Oddly enough, I was never called a wanker by a pedestrian when I drove it, unlike today’s Aston Martin owners. That happened when in a humble Mazda MX5. You could call me a champagne socialist back then but that would be misleading. I never had money. I have a habit of giving money away when I earn it.
English mechanics at work
I had reason to visit the factory a few times to service the car, and once to interview its then dynamic hero, owner Peter Wheeler. Each visit was an eye opener.
You could tell it was a struggling hand-to-mouth company the second you stepped foot onto the old floor carpet full of holes in the dirty reception area. This was a place where mechanics had hands swathed in grease and Swarfega.
After chatting to Wheeler about his plans for the company and complimenting him on the way he had improved build quality – which he had done immeasurably – he and his PR assistant invited me on a tour of the factory. Production was similar to that other all-British car maker, Morgan, maker of pre-war models in ash wood and aluminium. Not a robot in sight. Bucks were trundled from one shed to another to begin the next process of build or refinement. Workers hung around chatting and drinking mugs of tea.
I was shown the new Griffith being shaped, as yet unannounced. To my astonishment Wheeler and his staff left me there, free to photograph the new model for competitors or a quick photo sale to newspapers. They went off to lunch, or a meeting. It was that casual and relaxed a place.
Wheeler’s last stand
In the months to come Wheeler turned out a dizzying array of flashy eye-catching models all actually based on the same car and engine. His company remains in automobile history books. It took 1,500 deposits for its new Tuscan model at a motor show, the most any car company had registered for any one model at one time. Do the arithmatic, 1,500 times £5,000 deposit.
Getting into the North American market eluded TVR. Their safety standards were just not good enough to meet USA regulations, and they didn’t have the cash to improve them. In good old stick-in-the-mud mechanic stubbornness Wheeler always averred his cars had all the safety equipment a driver needed – the footbrake.
It was a crass comment. He overlooked inexpert young drivers and polishing queens with little or no experience of driving powerful sports cars killed when their TVR spun 360 degrees on a barely wet road and collided with tree. Insurance companies listed TVR top of the list for accidents.
A terrible error
Wheeler made one fatal mistake. A man of tremendous energy and independence, he took the decision to create his own engine, one fettled by an eccentric mechanic. It was a chocolate engine. He first put it into the TVR Tuscan. When I arrived at the factory for my car’s annual service there was two Griffith’s waiting at the service bay, and 13 Tuscans. All was not well with TVR. A small company can’t survive a recall on that scale.
TVR then went into decline, its passionate and faithful fans left to weep in torment. Wheeler gave up the ghost in more ways than one leaving a spoilt son of a Russian oligarch to squander his pocket money on it and when bored, eventually let it fade away.
Nevertheless, Peter Wheeler was a pioneer. No sooner had TVR fallen than major manufacturers began to copy what he had been doing, namely making car interiors an exciting place to sit in. Cheap hard plastic began to disappear in place of expensive soft textured plastics. Instruments were designed to please the eye as well as being practical. The aural characteristics of a car were deemed as important as its looks.
The new boss, Les Edgar, announced that the resurrected TVR would produce its first car priced £55,000. The new car is priced at £90,000 before extras, a huge disappointment to all but the extremely well-heeled.
TVR has moved its ethos from making sports cars for the masses, to making sports cars for the Monaco set. But he has chosen two things wisely, the engine, a tried and tested Cosworth V8, and the engineering designer, Gordon Murray, God’s own car engineer.
They car has a pleasing if conventional shape to most other sports coupes, contemporary but not avant-garde. It sports side-exit exhausts, sculpted front wheel arches, and a swoopy body. The rear end looks like all TVRs, the designer went on holiday after the door shape was agreed. But there’s no creaky crazing fibreglass to repaint regulary.
It boasts a trusty – at last! – atmospheric 5.0-litre quad-cam V8, the unit in Ford’s Mustang, but thoroughly overhauled for duty here by Cosworth to deliver more power and torque. It’s dry sumped to lower the centre of gravity, and has 50/50 weight distribution.
There’s no ultra-modern transmissions or flappy paddles behind the steering wheel. This is a TVR remember. It’s back to basics time. You get a gear stick – a stick shift to my American cousins.
This Griffith uses a Tremec Magnum six-speed manual, (how manly!) with a custom lightweight flywheel and clutch, and bespoke gear ratios. With a dry weight of 1,250kg, the new car is extreemly light, and boasts a power-to-weight ratio of 400bhp-per-tonne. This should thrust the Griffith into full-bore supercar territory, where forward motion begins to turn surreal: 0-100mph in six with a 200mph top speed – and you have to remember to change gear yourself.
Guarantees of a great engineer
In key areas the new Griffith is revolutionary. It’s the first production car to deploy Gordon Murray Design’s iStream technology, (he of racing car, Le Mans, and McLaren legend) which simplifies the manufacturing process while introducing carbon fibre and delivering the sort of structural rigidity TVRs of old could only dream of. Any car designed by Gordon Murray is a cast iron investment, if that’s how you view personal transportation and have the money to feather it.
The chassis consists of a carbon composite bonded to steel and aluminium, with body panels also in composite. The iStream tech gives the Griffith notable crash performance: the energy loads are directed through front and rear crash structures, leaving the chassis intact. It also has a fully flat under floor. The 21st century further intrudes with the TVR’s steering: it’s fully electric. In fact, for the curious, the new car is in every way the opposite to TVR’s original principles.
Whether anybody will want to buy one in preference to a McLaren or a Ferrari is another matter. The company returns when manufacturers are moving over to all-electric of hybrid cars, electric cars that are by nature extremely fast off the mark. Cities are banning loud vehicles.
As our plethora of right-wing, fast car obsessed automobile magazines are apt to spout, “it’s just great that TVR exists.” Aye, well, we’ll see how long it lasts, but I wish it well.
NOTE: At June 2020, no cars have been delivered, the company is asking for investment to make them, and all other companies are producing electric or hybrid cars. The outlook for TVR is decidedly gloomy, to say the least.